Marine Corps Capt. Robert Hanson was a fearless fighter over the skies of the South Pacific during World War II. That bravery earned him a place as one of the war’s great aces. He didn’t survive to make it home, but his efforts and leadership led to a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Hanson was born Feb. 4, 1920, in Lucknow, India, to Harry and Jean Hanson, who were Methodist missionaries. Hanson had three brothers, all of whom also served during World War II, and a younger sister. While he spent the majority of his life in India, his family called Newtonville, Mass., home.
Hanson spent one year of junior high school in the U.S. before returning with his family to India. He attended high school at the Woodstock School in the foothills of the Himalayas. During that time, he became a champion wrestler and an all-around good athlete.
In the spring of 1938, after graduating high school, Hanson was bicycling his way through Europe and was in Vienna, Austria, when the country was annexed into Nazi Germany. He made his way back to the U.S., where he attended Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Hanson played collegiate football, track, and tennis, according to the school’s website, and he was still enrolled when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
In the spring of 1942, Hanson was in his senior year of college when he decided to leave to join the Marine Corps’ aviation cadet program. After training with the 25th Marine Fighting Squadron, he commissioned into the service as an aviator on Feb. 19, 1943.
Within months, 1st Lt. Hanson was shipped to the South Pacific, where his fearlessness as a fighter pilot with Marine Fighting Squadron 215 quickly became well-known. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he fought the Japanese “boldly and with daring aggressiveness.”
On Nov. 1, 1943, Hanson was providing cover for Allied landing operations at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville Island when he attacked six enemy torpedo bombers. According to his citation, the Japanese aircraft were forced to jettison their bombs, and one of the planes was destroyed. Hanson himself had to ditch his F4U Corsair in the bay after the fight. He paddled for six hours in a rubber life raft before being rescued by a destroyer.
Hanson’s next several kills came the following January in a hot streak that earned him the nickname “Butcher Bob.” On Jan. 18, 1944, he shot down five enemy aircraft. On Jan. 24, Hanson brought down four Japanese Zeros by himself after getting cut off from his division while deep in enemy territory over northern New Britain, an island east of Papua New Guinea. On Jan. 30, he took out another four enemy aircraft.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get the opportunity to take out more. On Feb. 3, 1944, Hanson asked his captain if he could strafe enemy antiaircraft artillery positions on New Ireland, just east of Rabaul, New Britain. During the mission, his plane crashed into the sea. It was one day short of his 24th birthday, and he was never seen again.
However, in the short amount of time he spent fighting, Hanson had become a masterful air combatant and one of the Corps’ highest scoring aces. Records show he downed 20 aircraft in the span of 13 days during six missions. His kill total was 25, putting him just behind the high scores of fellow aces Capt. Joe Foss and Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.
On Aug. 19, 1944, Hanson’s mother received the Medal of Honor on her son’s behalf from Maj. Gen. Lewis G. Merritt during a ceremony in Boston. Hanson also received the Air Medal and Navy Cross and was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain.
Hanson’s name is listed on the Wall of the Missing at the Manila Cemetery in the Philippines, as well as on a memorial marker at Newton Cemetery in Newton Center, Massachusetts.
Hanson’s life and legacy hasn’t been forgotten. In 1944, his alma mater, Hamline University, posthumously awarded him the degree he was working on. The following year, the destroyer USS Hanson was commissioned and set sail. To this day, the Robert M. Hanson Award, established in 1968, is given every year to the Corps’ best fighter attack squadron by the Marine Corps Aviation Association.